Nintendo Labo Looks Awesome for Kids and That’s Okay
On January 17th, Nintendo announced Labo, a cardboard toy creation kit that interacts with the Switch’s Joy-Cons, and the internet has some thoughts. From Nintendo’s initial tease of the reveal, it has made it clear that Labo is “specially crafted for kids and those who are kids-at-heart,” and yet the gaming community at large has seemed to mock the idea of DIY toy creation. The derision stems from complaints over the price, concerns over durability, and a general lack of interest from the common gamer. But that is precisely the problem; the “common gamer” does not exist anymore, and this imperative that every game be for everyone--or, more accurately, for the dwindling demographic who once held a majority in the gaming marketplace--is damaging not only to innovation but also to the potential success of what seems like an interesting product.
Labo is marketed around the words “Make,” “Play,” and “Discover.” The creation kit includes cardboard pieces, strings, rubber bands, and hinges used to build a variety of toys, as well as a Switch cartridge with a host of compatible mini-games. There are two available packages, the Variety Pack which will cost $69.99 and the Robot Suit pack which will cost $79.99. Upon booting up the cartridge, kids and parents can follow step-by-step instructions on how to build the toys, referred to as “Toy-Cons.” The Toy-Cons range from an RC car to a fishing rod to a mini piano, and each toy is compatible with the Joy-Cons in clever ways; for example, the infrared camera on the bottom of the controllers is used to identify which keys are pressed on the mini piano, and the HD rumble is used to propel the RC car around the floor. It’s brilliant, albeit a little rudimentary, but is no doubt an effective use of often-mocked Joy-Con features. The “Discover” aspect of Labo is related to a feature found on the cartridge that explains, mechanically and technologically, how the Toy-Cons work. As a package, Labo seems like a fun children’s toy that emphasizes key developmental aspects like tactile and active learning, while also making use of some of the Switch’s more quirky features.
What followed Nintendo’s announcement was a chorus of mockery at everything from the cardboard used to make the toys to the higher price point. Gamers took to Twitter to voice their opinions on Nintendo’s latest gimmick, with the most popular joke revolving around photoshopped screenshots of the Toy-Cons and how they might be compatible within other games. Not only is the joke not based in any fact—many seemed to initially assume Labo was a peripheral that would receive questionable support from other Switch titles—but it’s reductive. Concerns over the Toy-Con’s durability make sense to me, but I feel that much of the internet outrage over Labo stems from the gaming community’s requirement that everything be for the majority. When the Switch was announced, it seemed like a far flung dream. A console that is both traditional and portable, but can transition seamlessly between the two? It was too good to be true. But with the fulfillment of those promises, Nintendo released a console with such mass market appeal that it has now been deemed the fastest selling console of all-time in North America. So when that same company decided to create something for a smaller, more focused demographic, the newly converted Nintendo fanatics got upset. I truly do not see what there is to complain about with Labo. The price is high, sure, but when you consider the cost of most standard Switch games, the peripherals raise that price a mere $10-$20. Even if we consider Labo a non-premium title (similar to, say, 1-2 Switch) and suggest a cartridge price of $50, that still locks the peripherals in at a $20-$30 price point. This is not out of the ordinary for children’s toys, especially when you consider that these cardboard creations are more complex than most are giving them credit for.
What is troubling about the Labo outrage is this notion within gaming that everybody’s needs must be catered to en masse. Gaming is becoming more diverse all the time, and what was once a focused market is being opened up to include people from all ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and generations. Consider the growing prevalence of the walking simulator in recent years, catapulted in no small part by The Fullbright Company’s “Gone Home” in 2013. Comment sections on articles about the game were filled with vitriol targeted at how this wasn’t a game at all and should not be marketed as such. It didn’t have universal appeal, and was therefore not a game and shunned by large portions of the gaming community. It’s troubling to consider that many gamers tend to act as a mob of gatekeepers for what should and should not be considered a game. There seems to be some revisionist history around the development of video game genres, parroted chiefly by a younger demographic that grew up gaming in the early 2000s (a generation of which I am also a part). The bulk of games released during the PS2-PS3 days made gamers think that the art form was skewing heavily towards the “adult” and the “important”. While I am a huge proponent of games being viewed in a serious and critical light, the assumption that this demographic tends to take is that importance necessitates edginess or cinema-quality storytelling. I am of the mind that games should not be movies, and instead their strength lies in their diversity of experience.
Labo is doing something rather innovative, and while gameplay mechanics such as motion controls tend to be shunned as pure gimmickry, their pervasiveness over the past decade shows that there is clearly an audience for such experiences, and that audience could very well be children still early in development. The expansion of the gaming audience is vital for its continued acceptance in mainstream culture, and Nintendo is nailing it with Labo. What I hope Nintendo is signaling a continued interest in tactile game experiences, because games should not have to be for the collective. The growth of the medium will go hand-in-hand with the diversification of play, and it’s comforting to see that at least one of the major console manufacturers is taking notice.